News from the snow
Montgenèvre could be described as one of the original altitude ski resorts. The area, a few hundred metres from the Italian border, has been inhabited since prehistoric times and has seen trans-European travellers passing through for millenia, including famous names like Julius Ceasar, and Hannibal with his herd of elephants and, later on, Napoleon. Today it's the base for thousands of skiers who want to slide over in to Italy via the Milky Way lift system which can take them as far as Sestière and Sauze d'Oulx when snow cover is adequate. Until recently it was necessary to ensure you had a passport on you when you crossed the border by ski lift, but the border guards at the top of Clavière's chairlifts appear to have moved on, thanks to the ending of travel restrictions within European Community countries in mainland Europe. The lift pass scheme in which the resort participates has recently grown to become one of the world's largest and, apart from the 400km (250 miles) of sometimes lift-linked skiing in the 'Milky Way', the 'Grand Galaxy Pass' also includes neighbouring large French ski centres such as Serre Chevalier, Alpe d'Huez, Les 2 Alpes and Puy St Vincent - all in all some 1120km (just under 700 miles) of terrain served by more than 320 lifts - only slightly smaller dimensions than the famouis Dolomiti Superski, but much less fragmented. Montgènevre is a fascinating place for those interested in the history of ski resort development - it is one of those that claim to be the birthplace of French skiing (with Clavière just over the border claiming the same for Italy), and certainly downhilling in the resort is a little over 100 years old. In the middle of Montgènevre there is a charming and traditional village centre from when the resort was most fashionable - a fact now forgotten by many reviewers who think only of Chamonix, Cortina, St Moritz and other early stars of skiing. Then, further out, there is the 'concrete rectangle' section which survives from the '60s and '70s when mass-market skiing was born, and finally, further out still, the newest developments combining modern comforts with a more sympathetic chalet style design, fashionable since the mid-'80s.
Lively, charming mountain village with lots of sunshine; a mix of traditional architecture and a trend to restore and build luxury and modern accomodation. Doorstep to Italy.
Beginners have wide sunny slopes by the village and, because of the altitude, backed up with snowmaking, the convenience of village level nursery slopes is ensured throughout the season - unlike at many other famous but lower altitude resorts. The altitude also means that Montgenèvre can genuinely maintain a sunshine record that is the envy of many, but doesn't melt too much of the snow.
The Milky Way is extremely good fun and has an adventurous feel for those who enjoy the sensation of travelling rather than doing the same run or the same mountain face on different runs, over and over. The problem with it is that there are low points, without snowmaking, which mean you end up walking or sometimes it means the link is physically impossible. Normally it's best to aim for mid-January to the first half of March to be reasonably confident that the links will all work properly. The main weak point is Cesana Torinese at 1350m where you have to walk across a road anyway. The snow tends to melt away here the fastest but, on the plus side, there's a series of two chair lifts on either side of the valley so you can ride down over the green grass if the snow level isn't low enough, as well as back up the other side. Once you reach Sansicario you are back in 'snow sure' land and from the top of Fraiteve you can choose to head down towards Sestrière, one of the world's snow making capitals and one of the world's first high altitude purpose built resorts, or to once famously rowdy but now rather peaceful and pleasant Sauze d'Oulx.
Experts may have to travel about to find a huge amount of challenging terrain, or venture off piste with a guide. Nonetheless there are nine marked black pistes at Montgenèvre alone. These are dotted all around the mountain, but the 'off the beaten track' Col de l'Alpet area on the 'back route' to Clavière 2430 metres is a favourite area for bumps. Heliskiing from Montgenèvre: two drop off points on the Italian peaks over 3000 metres.
Also, there is a new kindergarten centre called "Les Marmotts", part of the ski-school ESF, for ages two years and older.